But what if I told you that the real super ingredients for your skin aren’t the ones that go on it?
What if I told you that when it comes to skin health, it’s all about what’s on your plate?
But don’t take my word for it — keep reading and I’ll break down the existing science on this important connection between skin health and food.
What does food have to do with skin health?
It might seem strange that the foods we eat have such a big impact on skin health but as I say over and over again on this blog, my social media pages, and in my book Happy Gut®, the foods we eat can make the difference between health and disease — and the skin is no exception. The foods we eat get broken down in our gastrointestinal tract and then the nutrients travel all over our body — including to our skin cells — to fuel us. But as I said, don’t take my word for it:
- Researchers have concluded that macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) work together with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as a team to maintain barrier functions of the skin and that nutritional status can affect skin structure and function.
- A study on 177 adults in Melbourne, Australia showed that a higher intake of vegetables, olive oil, fish, and legumes was associated with a lower skin wrinkling.
- Research has shown that higher intakes of certain nutrients — like vitamin C and monounsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil, avocados, and certain nuts) — are linked to healthier skin.
- Studies have also linked skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and rosacea to dietary factors.
It all comes back to the health of the gut, including the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome and the integrity of the intestinal barrier.
A healthier gut means healthier skin. In fact, research has shown that the gut microbiota communicate directly with the skin. The authors of one study even explain that while it hasn’t been fully explored yet, specific bacteria and their metabolites are able to influence skin balance because of their ability to modulate the immune system and inflammatory response. And as I explained in a previous blog, it’s suspected that this modulation occurs along the mTOR pathway, which creates inflammation.
The Skin Inflam-Food Triangle
At this point there’s enough research on the nutrition-gut health-skin connection to assume that diet can have an influence on any skin condition out there. So now, let’s get practical and talk about the foods that can help and hurt your skin health. If you want to improve your skin health by optimizing your nutrition, it’s important to avoid the Skin Inflam-Food Triangle, which are the three categories of food that can cause the most skin inflammation. They include:
A: Any Form of Sugar
This means all sources of sugar — including cakes, candy, sweet coffee drinks (sorry Starbucks!), wine and soda — but especially those that contain simple sugars like high fructose corn syrup, and refined white sugar. Unfortunately, cutting out sugar is easier said than done. Why? It’s hiding in everything (even foods that are marketed as “healthy”) and can be disguised under more than 30 different names. Before you pick up a packaged food or snack, make sure you check how many grams of sugar it contains. If it’s more than 5 grams per serving, I recommend skipping it in honor of your skin health. This is especially important for chocolate, which has been directly connected to skin health issues.
I know none of you want to hear this, but if you’re looking to optimize skin health through diet, eliminating inflammatory grains like wheat is a critical part of the puzzle. Multiple research studies have connected bread intake to acne and other inflammatory skin conditions. My colleague, Dr. Nigma Talib, calls the effect wheat has on the face — “gluten face” — in her book, Younger Skin Starts in the Gut. In it, she reveals that people who eat a lot of bread and wheat products tend to have puffy complexions with red cheeks. In other words, if you eat a lot of bread, your skin starts to look a little bit “doughy.”
According to the author of a paper in Practical Dermatology, “It is important to consider dietary changes to complement dermatologic treatments in patients with inflammatory skin diseases…. Bread should be eliminated or reduced as it has a high GI (glycemic index — a measure of the sugar impact of foods when digested), is a source of gluten and can also contain sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and [inflammatory omega-6] soy or vegetable oils.”
When it comes to skin health, there’s no worse offender than dairy. The data collected in the Australian study I mentioned above also revealed that skin wrinkling was associated with higher intakes of butter, margarine, and milk products. Dairy intake can also be associated with bags and dark circles under the eyes with swollen eyelids, which is caused by the sinus congestion often produced by dairy.
So what’s so bad about dairy, and why does it impact skin health so much? Dairy can be inflammatory to the gut and immune system and it can also contain hormones that disrupt androgen levels i n humans, which explains why acne has also been connected to dairy intake in multiple studies. You’re probably wondering: Is there any healthy dairy? Studies have shown that skim milk and low-quality dairy products from animals treated with hormones and antibiotics are the worst offenders — but I recommend reducing dairy as much as possible across the board if you are struggling with a skin health issue.
Now that you’re familiar with the Skin Inflam-Food Triangle, you’re probably wondering what foods can benefit your skin. Well, just like there are superfoods for your hormone health or brain health, there are also foods that are super for your skin health, including:
The 5 Best Superfoods for the Skin
Avocado’s are more than just Millennials’ favorite food. They are also chock-full of fiber that helps feed healthy bacteria in the gut to make sure the communication lines between the gut and skin is as healthy as possible. The healthy omega-3 fats in avocados also help fend off chronic inflammation and inflammatory skin issues like redness or acne. Plus the fat content keeps those sugar cravings at bay. I put avocado in salads, smoothies, and gluten-free toast. (If you want a fun new way to eat avocado, try this Gluten-Free Avocado N’Ice Cream.)
2. Sweet Potatoes
We already learned that inflammatory grains and bread are on the “no” list for skin health. But what do you eat instead to get healthy carbohydrates? This is where sweet potatoes really shine. Sweet potatoes are one of the healthiest sources of carbohydrates around; they’re full of phytonutrients that keep cells healthy and have a substantial dose of vitamin A, which plays a major role in skin cell turnover and wound healing. Sweet potatoes are also rich in bioidentical progesterones (progesterone-like compounds that have a similar effect on the body as the real progesterone that’s produced by your body), which help reduce puffiness and reduce fluid retention.
3. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish like salmon, herring, and mackerel make the list of “superfoods” for more than one reason. They not only contain high amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3’s, they also contain significant amounts of vitamin A and vitamin D, which have also been shown to decrease inflammation and help boost the immune system in the skin.
There’s a reason why your parents always hassled you about eating your broccoli when you were a kid. Broccoli contains a compound called diindolylmethane (DIM), which is known as the ultimate hormone-balancing compound. In fact, this compound is the reason why people with a high risk for breast cancer are told to eat plenty of cabbage and broccoli. Broccoli also contains sulforaphane, a compound that is critical for phase II detoxification; it binds to toxins like carcinogens and drug metabolites as well as steroid hormone metabolites, so that they can be so they can be excreted through the bile or urine.
One of the biggest roles that food plays in promoting healthy skin is through antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules that help fight cellular damage from factors like pollution or sun exposure. The good news is that antioxidant-rich foods like pomegranate are typically delicious and easy to incorporate into your routine through smoothies or juices. Studies have shown that pomegranate can protect against photodamage and that drinking pomegranate juice or extract can actually protect against skin cancer. If you want a tasty way to get pomegranate daily, try this Berry Berry Delicious Smoothie with pomegranate instead of blueberries.
By taking a food-first approach to skin health, you avoid the trap of spending hundreds of dollars on topical products AND treat the underlying root cause of skin conditions. But here’s the thing, in order to get the benefits of these skin health superfoods, you need to be able to absorb them, which means you need to have a #happygut.
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